Blyleven was born in the Netherlands, but raised in Garden Grove, California where he attended Santiago High School. His father moved the family to Melville, Saskatchewan, Canada when Blyleven was two years old, and then to Southern California when he was age 5. He became interested in baseball as a young boy watching Sandy Koufax pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers and listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett announce the Dodgers' radio broadcasts. Blyleven was quoted as saying, "My dad built me a mound in the backyard with a canvas backdrop over our horseshoe pits, and I would go back there and just throw and throw and throw until I developed it, and it became my curveball. And I could throw it over at any time, any count."
Blyleven starred on the Santiago High School baseball team, also running cross country to build up his stamina and leg strength. He was drafted straight out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in the third round in 1969, where after only 21 minor league starts he found himself called up to the Majors at age 19 on June 2, 1970. In his first season, his sharp curveball helped him to ten victories and he was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. In 1973 he pitched the most shutouts of any AL pitcher, with 9.
However, Blyleven's early career with the Twins was not always pleasant as he was hounded by critics and fans. Unhappy with his salary there, Blyleven was traded to the Texas Rangers in a six-player deal on June 1, 1976, along with teammate Danny Thompson. He pitched well with the Rangers, posting a 15-5 record with a 2.76 ERA. On September 22, 1977, just two weeks after being sidelined with a groin injury, Blyleven no-hit the California Angels 6-0 at Anaheim Stadium. His 2.74 career ERA with the Rangers remains the best in team history.
Then, following an incident in which Blyleven blatantly gave the finger to a television camera obviously focused on him during one of the Rangers' rare nationally broadcast games, Blyleven was again traded on December 8, 1977 to the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of the first four-team trade in Major League Baseball history. Blyleven's no-hitter was with his final start as a Ranger; not until Cole Hamels during the 2015 season would a pitcher be traded after pitching a no-hitter in his final start for the team that traded him. With the Pirates, he led the team in ERA, strikeouts and complete games in 1978 and helped them to a World Series victory in 1979.
Blyleven became disgruntled with the Pirates and threatened to retire during the 1980 season if he was not traded. The Pirates did trade him, to the Cleveland Indians on December 9, 1980. Blyleven sat out most of the 1982 season with an elbow injury and struggled again in 1983, but came back in 1984 with one of his best seasons: a 19–7 record with a 2.87 ERA. He missed a second 20-win season that year when he was forced to miss a couple of starts after breaking his foot when joking around in the bullpen. In 1985 he again led the American League in shutouts with 5. That year he also pitched 293 ⅔ innings and completed 24 games, a feat never repeated (Only two pitchers have completed even ten games in a season since 2000.) Blyleven was unhappy playing for the lackluster Indians and forced a trade back to the Twins, where he passed the 3,000-strikeout mark and helped the Twins to a 1987 World Series victory.
Blyleven's first two full seasons back with the Twins also produced major league records for home runs allowed in a single season (50) and in back-to-back seasons (96). He never surrendered more than 24 home runs in any year before and after the 1986–87 campaigns, averaging 21 allowed per season over the course of his career.
Blyleven went to the California Angels in 1989 and pitched a 2.73 ERA for a 17–5 record in his first season, and led the league for his third and final time in shutouts (5). He then missed the entire 1991 season following rotator cuff surgery. He came back in 1992, but was mostly unproductive, going 8–12 with a 4.74 ERA. He retired following that season with a career 287–250 record with 3,701 strikeouts (only 16 other pitchers have at least 3,000 career strikeouts) and a 3.31 ERA. He tried out for the Twins again in the spring of 1993, but did not make the squad, making his retirement official. He featured the MLB All-Stars winning the 1993 World Port Tournament in Rotterdam.
MLB Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson stated "[his curveball] was nasty, I'll tell you that. Enough to make your knees buckle. Bert was a terrific pitcher — a dominating pitcher."
Blyleven was a pitching coach for the Netherlands in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
After his first year of eligibility in 1998, Blyleven was widely considered to be the best eligible pitcher not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame. According to Matt Welch of Reason Magazine, "there had long been a strong case that the Dutch-born curveballista was the most deserving player on the outside of Cooperstown looking in." Still, it was not until his 14th year of eligibility in 2011 that he was elected, with 79.7% of the vote. He currently ranks 5th all-time in strikeouts, 9th all-time in shutouts, and 27th all-time in wins. At the time of his election he was the only eligible member of the 3000 strikeout club, and the only person with 50 or more shutouts, not in the Hall of Fame.
Blyleven received only 17.55% of the vote for Hall of Fame admission in 1998 (first year of eligibility), and his vote total dropped to 14.1% the following year. No player who had debuted on the ballot since 1970 had a vote total that low and later won election to the Hall. However, ESPN.com columnist Jayson Stark stated that "no player has ever — and again, that word is 'ever' — had his Hall of Fame candidacy helped more by the sabermetrics boom than Blyleven." Specifically, according to Welch, "the president and chief investment officer of Lederer & Associates Investment Counsel in Long Beach, California a guy by the name of Rich Lederer, began spending some of his off-hours writing analysis on the Interwebs about Blyleven's overlooked case."
By 2006, this total had increased to 53.33%. In 2007, Blyleven's total dipped to 47.7% (75% is the minimum required for admission to the Hall). In 2008, he received 336 votes, or 61.9% of the vote. In 2009, he gained only two votes, for a total of 338, 62.7%. In 2010, Blyleven had 74.2% of the votes, missing admission to the Hall of Fame by only 5 votes (0.8%).
Blyleven was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2011 after receiving 79.7% of the vote on his 14th attempt. "It's been 14 years of praying and waiting", he said on a conference call from Fort Myers, Florida "I thank the baseball writers of America for, I'm going to say, finally getting it right." Blyleven was the first Dutch-born player inducted, and his Hall of Fame plaque depicts him with a Minnesota Twins cap.
Blyleven was inducted into the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame in 2002, and was chosen to the fan-elected "Wendy's- Minnesota Twins All-Metrodome Team" on July 28, 2009. On July 16, 2011 the Minnesota Twins formally retired Blyleven's number.
In 1996, Blyleven became a color commentator for the Twins. Blyleven's commentary is occasionally risqué for a baseball broadcast, but provides interesting and friendly conversation between him and play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer. One of his trademarks is circling fans with the telestrator on screen. Fans, both at home and at road games, carry signs to the games saying "Circle me Bert." This has led to a fundraising campaign with the Parkinson's Foundation and a sponsorship with the Minnesota Lottery.
When announcing partner Bremer attempted to circle fans with the telestrator, he drew geometric forms that were non-circular, and Blyleven and fans started to jostle Bremer with phrases like "Rhombus me, Dick" or "Triangle me, Dick."
He currently resides in Fort Myers, Florida.
Blyleven appeared as himself in the 1990 James Belushi film Taking Care of Business. During a 2006 broadcast, Blyleven forgot the name of the movie and had to be reminded of it by a technician in the broadcast booth.
Blyleven was one of baseball's most notorious dugout pranksters during his playing days. He earned the moniker "Frying Dutchman" by frequently setting fire to his teammates' shoelaces, a practical joke known as a "hot-foot." During his time with the Angels, the fire extinguisher in the team's clubhouse at Angel Stadium read: "In case of Blyleven: Pull."
Blyleven did not know his correct name until he was about to get married. He had thought all his life his given name was "Rikaalbert"; when he was about to get married and got a copy of the birth certificate issued to his parents in Zeist, needing the certificate to fill out the marriage-license application, he saw his name for the first time as Rik Aalbert Blijleven.